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Why Has My Tortoise Stopped Eating?

Last Updated on February 19, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoises shouldn’t eat every day, let alone several times a day. They should eat for 5 days and avoid eating for 2 days, known as ‘starve days.’ However, it’s rarely normal for tortoises to stop eating entirely.

When a tortoise’s enclosure is too cold, it can’t digest food, so it won’t consume its meals. If it ate food, it would sit in the stomach, decay, and result in asphyxiation or bacterial infection.

Raising the ambient temperature of the enclosure should resolve the problem if the tortoise is cold. However, other health conditions can mean that a tortoise will refuse food or be unable to eat.

Why Is My Tortoise Not Eating?

Here are the reasons why tortoises lose their appetite:

1/ Stomatitis (Mouth Rot)

Stomatitis occurs when bacteria enter an open wound in the mouth, infecting the oral cavity.

This condition commonly affects tortoises post-brumation (hibernation), where the immune system has been compromised. Left untreated, it’ll spread to other areas, such as the esophagus (gullet or food pipe) or even the lungs.

Aside from appetite loss, the most common symptoms of mouth rot in tortoises include:

  • Red and swollen mouth and gums.
  • Dead tissue in the mouth.
  • White (cheese-like) discharge around the mouth.

It’s necessary to administer NSAIDs, such as meloxicam, to clear up stomatitis. Also, a vet must remove any infected and necrotic (dead) tissue under anesthetic to allow the healthy tissue to regrow.

2/ Post-Brumation

Tortoises emerging from brumation will take time to adjust.

A tortoise will be lethargic, disoriented, and dehydrated during this time. It’ll prioritize rehydration in preference to eating, even to the point of ignoring its food.

Low appetence can continue for 10-14 days. Offering hydrating fruits, such as cucumber, and increasing the enclosure’s ambient temperature to aid digestion will encourage tortoises to eat sooner.

Tortoise Lost Appetite

If the tortoise loses its appetite suddenly, this could be due to the following conditions:

3/ Impaction

Impaction occurs when an intestinal blockage inhibits the movement of food waste through the gut. Although impaction is used interchangeably with constipation, it’s a more serious condition.

Impaction occurs from ingesting certain materials, like small stones and bedding. The Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery stated that captive tortoises might unintentionally ingest enclosure substrate that’s attached to food.

These items become lodged in the gut, causing discomfort, meaning the tortoise will have little interest in eating. A tortoise can become impacted if it has been fed a poor diet or isn’t sufficiently hydrated.

Other symptoms of impaction in tortoises include:

  • No longer defecating.
  • Lethargy and low energy.
  • Respiratory issues.
  • Low appetite.

Allowing the tortoise to bathe in a shallow bowl of warm water can be beneficial. However, in severe cases, a vet must perform an x-ray before surgically removing the blockage.

tortoise refuses to eat

4/ Dystocia (Egg Binding)

Dystocia, also known as egg retention or post-ovulatory stasis, occurs when a female tortoise becomes egg-bound.

The eggs can become stuck, either internally or while being laid. Dystocia leads to unsettled and restless behavior, so you’ll likely observe the tortoise straining and seeking out places to dig.

Various factors can cause dystocia, including the following:

  • Low humidity levels.
  • Incorrect temperature gradients.
  • Oddly shaped or overly large eggs.
  • Narrow passageway for the egg-laying process.
  • Insufficient calcium.

It’s common for an egg-bound female to stop eating, so post-ovulatory stasis must be resolved.

Egg-laying can be encouraged by providing the tortoise with a nesting area with optimized temperature and humidity levels. Sometimes the eggs can be moved down the reproductive tract via massaging.

A vet can inject hormones to promote egg-laying or collapse the eggs with a needle.

5/ Stress

A tortoise that doesn’t feel safe will spend its time hiding and may have little appetite. It’ll want to hunker down and avoid interacting with any perceived dangers, even if it misses several meals.  

It’s common for a new tortoise to ignore food for the first few days after arrival, especially when young. Give it time to adjust to its environment, and ensure it has somewhere to hide.

If the tortoise lives in an outdoor enclosure, ensure that other pets, rodents, and predatory animals aren’t stalking it or entering its space.

Tortoises are more accepting of handling than turtles. Still, they’re mostly look-don’t-touch pets, and over-handling can stress a tortoise out. Avoid playing with new tortoises for the first few weeks.

Tortoise Not Eating But Active

Usually, a tortoise that won’t eat but acts normal is less problematic. Of course, you should check for other medical conditions, but it could have a safe explanation since tortoises brumate.

6/ Low Temperature

Tortoises are sensitive to the ambient temperature of their environment.

As cold-blooded (ectothermic) reptiles, they rely entirely on external sources of heat. Enclosures that lack a basking area will lead to the tortoise’s core temperature dropping too low, resulting in meal refusal.

Low temperatures cause tortoises to brumate (a form of hibernation). It’s a natural behavior that should be expected about once a year in most tortoise species and shouldn’t alarm you. Not all species brumate, such as leopard tortoises.

Outside of brumation, tortoises need one side of their enclosure to be 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the other side (a basking area) must be 95-105 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Herpetologica, tortoises thermoregulate by moving between these areas. 

7/ Constipation

A tortoise may be trying to clear its system if it refuses to eat. It may be constipated if it refuses to eat food and you can’t find any poop in the enclosure.

Feeding a tortoise too much can result in constipation. Tortoises don’t digest food as quickly as warm-blooded animals, so they may refuse to eat when backed up with waste.

A varied and balanced diet with clean water is the most effective way to prevent constipation.

As mentioned, beware of certain types of bedding and small stones, as they can be mistaken for food. Also, highly absorbent substrates can swell up and block the digestive tract.

Overcoming constipation can usually be achieved with a soak in a shallow bowl of warm water. Allow the tortoise to soak for a minimum of 20 minutes, and don’t allow the water to get too cold.

Tortoise Suddenly Stopped Eating

If the tortoise doesn’t slowly lose its appetite but refuses to eat suddenly, explanations include:

8/ Picky Eater

Tortoises aren’t selective eaters, but they might refuse meals that consistently lack variety, becoming bored with the food. Providing the tortoise with dietary diversity will keep it interested in its meals.

Most tortoises love eating dandelions and cucumbers.

9/ Respiratory Infection

Respiratory infections commonly affect tortoises when their enclosure is too cold. Perhaps its living space is drafty, the weather has deteriorated, or a heat bulb needs to be replaced.

The Taiwan Veterinary Journal noted that respiratory infections are common. The causes include:

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Viruses
  • Fungus

The symptoms of respiratory infection include:

  • Disinterested in food
  • Nasal discharge
  • Swollen or irritated eyes
  • Lethargy
  • Labored breathing
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Nose bubbles

Respiratory infections can turn into pneumonia if left untreated. Respiratory infections can be cleared up with vet-prescribed antibiotics. The treatment plan will depend on the cause of the infection.

Tortoise Not Eating Or Moving

If a tortoise refuses to eat and has begun sleeping a lot, this can narrow down the causes:

10/ Worms

If the tortoise has consumed food or substrate with worm eggs, they’ll develop into worms in the digestive tract. The most common kinds of worms that infest tortoises are oxyurids and ascarids.

A tortoise with worms will become weak, lack energy, and sleep a lot because parasites extract nutrients from the tortoise’s food. The situation is made worse when the tortoise’s appetite is further reduced.

It’s difficult for the human eye to see worms in tortoise poop, so they’re not easy to diagnose at home. After fecal testing, a vet will provide low doses of fenbendazole (Ivomec) to kill the worms.

Thoroughly cleaning the tortoise’s enclosure is vital for preventing reinfection. All bedding will need to be replaced to remove any traces of worm-contaminated feces.

11/ Injury

Pain itself is a diet suppressor. However, injuries to the mouth or throat can make eating difficult or painful. For example, a splinter inside the mouth can discourage food consumption.

Tortoises can be hurt in a myriad of ways. Shells may be impressive armor, but they aren’t faultless. A fall, impact injury, or being attacked by another animal can cause significant harm.

It isn’t uncommon for owners to let their pets play outside to forage and soak in the sun. Unfortunately, a lone tortoise can be tempting prey for wild animals.

tortoise lost appetite

12/ End of Life

Many tortoises can live for 50-100 years with proper care, depending on the species. A tortoise that has stopped eating may have reached the end of its life.

Even if the tortoise is young, it’s still vulnerable to life-threatening health complications.

How Long Can A Tortoise Survive Without Food?

Adult tortoises are resilient creatures, surviving for 3-6 months without food. There are reports of tortoises surviving 2-3 years without food, but this shouldn’t be considered normal.

Young tortoises are still growing and can’t survive for nearly as long without food.

All juveniles younger than 6 months of age will only survive for a few weeks without eating, and hatchlings can endure less time without food.

Even if they survive, young tortoises may experience developmental issues without food.

How To Increase A Tortoise’s Appetite

Stimulating a tortoise’s appetite involves resolving the source of the inappetence. There are ways to increase your tortoise’s appetite, including the following:

  • If the tortoise wakes up from brumation, give it two weeks to adjust.
  • Ensure that the enclosure’s temperatures are in the right range.
  • Give the tortoise a few soaks in warm water to rehydrate it.
  • Offer new foods and a varied palate.
  • Provide the tortoise with its favorite foods.
  • If constipated, provide vegetables with a high water content.

Healthy adult tortoises can live without eating for months and usually recover once their appetite returns.